Early evening and mornings this first week of July offer up some celestial close encounters that may test your stargazing skills–but they promise great rewards.
Pluto best for 2013. After nightfall on Monday, July 1 Pluto will be at “opposition,” meaning that it’s opposite to the Sun in the sky. And that means the dwarf planet is at its brightest for the year. But you’ll need dark skies and at least a medium-sized telescope (8 inches and up) and a detailed star chart to hunt down this icy denizen of the outer solar system. The far-off world sits 2.9 billion miles ( 4.7 billion kilometers from Earth) in the constellation Sagittarius on top of the ‘teapot’ pattern of stars, rising to its highest point in the southern horizon near local midnight. Pluto is so far away that it takes about 4 hours for the reflected sunlight to reach Earth. (Related Distant Dwarf Planet Secrets Revealed )
Also Monday, telescope users will find Saturn’s largest moon Titan easy to find, since it sits due north of the lord of the rings.
Venus enters Star Cluster. On Wednesday, July 3, get set for a real observing challenge. About 40 minutes after sunset, diamond-like Venus appears to glide straight through the Beehive star cluster. An open cluster of nearly 1000 stars, the Beehive sits some 600 light years away in the constellation Cancer, the crab.
Since both objects appear close to the Sun this week, this close encounter is best seen in more southerly latitudes through binoculars and telescopes.
Summer triangle. On Thursday, July 4, while outdoor celebrations are in high gear around the United States, skywatchers get to see the brightest stars of the season on display. The brilliant Vega, along with Deneb and Altair, form the giant Summer Triangle riding high in the eastern sky.
Look for the brightest of the trio, blue-white Vega, which sits highest in the eastern sky after nightfall and forms the top of the triangular formation. Only 25 light years from Earth, Vega is the brightest member of the tiny constellation Lyra- the harp. The second brightest star in the pattern, to the lower right of Vega, is 16 light years distant Altair, the eye of the eagle constellation, Aquila. To the lower left of Vega is Deneb–the brightest member of the constellation Cygnus, the swan. Despite sitting more than 3000 light years away, Deneb still shines as one of the brightest stars of the season due to its massive size–more than 100 times the diameter of our sun.
Moon and Aldebaran. Look towards the low east on dawn Friday, July 5, for the crescent moon to the left of the red giant star Aldebaran, the lead member in the constellation Taurus, the bull.
Also on July 5, the Earth is at Apehelion, the farthest point from the sun in 2013, in its yearlong orbit, at 151,278,336 kilometers (94,508,959 miles).
Moon and Mars. On Saturday, July 6, early bird skywatchers with binoculars should be able to pick out the faint orange glow of Mars hidden very low in the brightening eastern horizon about 30 minutes before sunrise. As an added challenge gas giant Jupiter will be shining faintly, to the lower left of the Red Planet. Making the hunt easier will be the crescent moon that sits to the red planet’s upper left. The pair will be only 4 degrees apart, slightly less than the width of your three middle fingers at arm’s length.